The United States asked the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday to unfreeze $1.5 billion in Libyan assets for the cash-strapped rebels in a move to bypass opposition from South Africa, which has close ties to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
The Obama administration has been trying for more than two weeks to get the Security Council committee that monitors sanctions against Libya to unfreeze the assets, but diplomats said South Africa objected. In the committee, agreement of all 15 council nations is required.
To overcome the opposition, the United States decided to introduce a resolution before the full Council, which does not need a unanimous vote.
Mark Kornblau, spokesman for the U.S. Mission, told reporters after closed consultations that the United States will call for a vote at 3 p.m. EDT (1900 GMT) Thursday unless South Africa changes its mind and joins consensus in the sanctions committee before then.
"The urgent imperative here is to get these assets unfrozen in a way that they can get on the ground to meet the urgent humanitarian needs of the Libyan people," Kornblau said.
"We expect it to have the necessary support to pass," a U.S. diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. "It's unfortunate it had to come to this point, but South Africa is being difficult."
South Africa's U.N. Ambassador Baso Sangqu told reporters his government is very concerned about the humanitarian situation in Libya but wants to wait for the outcome of an African Union meeting Thursday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. That meeting was expected to discuss recognition of the rebels' National Transitional Council _ now poised to take power in Libya.
He noted that neither his country _ nor the African Union or United Nations _ has recognized the Libyan opposition and expressed concern that the U.S.-backed resolution would imply recognition of the National Transitional Council.
The U.N. Security Council in February and March ordered all countries to freeze billions of dollars in assets of Gadhafi, key relatives, and members of his regime as well as the Libyan central bank, Libyan investment organizations and the National Oil Corporation. The aim was to punish the regime and cripple its response to protesters demanding change.
Britain, the U.S. and the European Union have called for the quick release of assets to help the National Transitional Council to rebuild the Libyan economy, restore essential services, reform the police and the army, and pay government salaries.
While the resolution introduced Wednesday focused on assets frozen in U.S, banks, council diplomats said a second resolution that will cover the U.N.'s mandate in a post-Gadhafi Libya will include proposals to unfreeze assets in other countries.
The draft resolution, obtained by The Associated Press, would unfreeze up to $1.5 billion. It would provide up to $500 million to international humanitarian organizations "to respond to initial and currently anticipated humanitarian needs," up to $500 million "to third-party vendors supplying fuel and other urgently needed humanitarian goods," and up to $500 million to an internationally monitored fund set up in May by 22 nations and organizations to help the rebels.
It calls for the fund to earmark up to $400 million "for expenses related to the provision of social services, including education and health," and up to $100 million "for food subsidies, electricity, and other humanitarian purchases for the Libyan people."
Sangqu said South Africa agreed to release $500 million for the international humanitarian organizations, but the U.S. said it wanted the entire $1.5 billion package.
The $1.5 billion represents about half of the Gadhafi regime's liquid assets that have been frozen in the United States. Much of the more than $30 billion in frozen assets in the U.S. is in real estate and other property holdings.
Associated Press Writer Anita Snow contributed to this report from the United Nations.